US: Failed Justice 100 Years After 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

On May 19, the three survivors and several descendants testified before the US House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee’s C
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(Washington, DC, May 21, 2021) – The failure by city and state authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to provide comprehensive Reparations has compounded the harms of the May 31, 1921, Tulsa race massacre on its upcoming centennial, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper and accompanying video.

Authorities should promptly consult with affected community members to develop a comprehensive Reparations plan that includes compensation to descendants of massacre victims, and immediately provide direct payments to the 3 known living massacre survivors, all over 100 years old.

Rather than working on such a plan, city and state authorities have focused most of their efforts on creating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and its flagship project, the “Greenwood Rising” history center, which is meant to honor the victims and foster cultural tourism. The Centennial Commission has raised at least $30 million, $20 million of which went to build Greenwood Rising, but it has alienated massacre survivors and many descendants of victims by failing to adequately involve them in its planning.

“Creating a museum to showcase victims’ experiences can be part of Reparations,” said Laura Pitter, Deputy Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “But when it’s done in lieu of or at the expense of other types of necessary repair, and without properly consulting the survivors or the descendants it can be very damaging.”

At least one survivor, 106-year-old Lennie Benningfield Randle, has issued a cease-and-desist letter ordering the commission to stop using her name or likeness to promote the project. All three living massacre survivors have sued the city of Tulsa, accusing it of continuing to enrich itself at the expense of the Black community by “appropriating” the massacre for tourism and economic opportunities that primarily benefit white-owned or controlled businesses and organizations.

On May 19, the three survivors and several descendants testified before the US House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee about the ongoing impact of the Tulsa race massacre. Chief Egunwale Amusan, a descendant of massacre survivors, said in his testimony, “Today, the same city responsible for the crimes of 1921 are leveraging the suffering of the three living survivors and their descendants in the name of tourism.”

In a May 29, 2020, report entitled “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument,” Human Rights Watch detailed the massacre and the failure to prosecute anyone for the violence and subsequent destruction that left hundreds of Black people dead, and more than 1,200 Black-owned houses burned to the ground in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, then known as “Black Wall Street.” The report described how the city thwarted attempts to rebuild, as well as more recent discriminatory policies such as redlining, the use of eminent domain and other measures to seize Black-owned property, and highway construction to prevent Greenwood and the broader North Tulsa community from advancing.

A state commission appointed in 1997 by the Oklahoma legislature (1997 Commission) spent nearly four years investigating the massacre with extensive community input. In 2001, it issued its final report with the following recommendations to state and local authorities, in order of priority:

  • Make direct payments to survivors and descendants of the massacre;
  • Establish a scholarship fund to benefit students affected by the massacre;
  • Create an economic enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district;
  • Create a memorial for the massacre victims and for the burial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of massacre victims.

In the 20 years since, most of the 1997 Commission’s recommendations have yet to be realized. No compensation has been paid to massacre survivors or descendants of victims. A scholarship fund was created, but since 2003 has only provided scholarships of $1,000 to 172 high school students and it contains no requirement for the recipients be Black or descendants of victims of the massacre.

Although there has been economic development in the historic Greenwood district, it has largely benefited mostly white business owners and developers rather than Black people in Greenwood and the wider North Tulsa area. In addition to the planned Greenwood Rising, the state and city helped to create a memorial, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center and Park, named after the acclaimed Oklahoma scholar, writer, and researcher. But it is much smaller in scale than planners envisioned and not fully paid for by public funds. Only in 2020 did authorities begin to exhume suspected mass grave sites of massacre victims.

Human Rights Watch reached out to the Tulsa Stadium Trust, which is responsible for developing parts of Greenwood, but received no response. We also reached out to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who declined our request for an interview. Oklahoma Senator Kevin Matthews, chair of the Centennial Commission, said he agreed that reparations in line with the 1997 Commission recommendations were needed, but said that was something the Oklahoma legislature needed to do separately and defended the Centennial Commission’s focus on a history center as being important for reconciliation.

In its 2020 report, Human Rights Watch urged state and local authorities to implement the 1997 Commission’s recommendations, but also build upon them to develop a comprehensive Reparations plan, in consultation with victims of the massacre, descendants, and the broader Black Tulsa community that were responsive to developments over the two decades since the release of the 1997 Commission’s report. Despite some progress, Tulsa remains a deeply segregated society stemming in part from a failure to provide redress for the massacre, compounded by years of neglect and systemic racism in a variety of sectors. The longer harms go unaddressed, the more difficult it is to develop adequate Reparations mechanisms that are proportionate to the gravity of the crime and to the harm caused, Human Rights Watch said.

In September 2020, after years of demanding reparations, including direct payments, survivors and some descendants sued the city and others. The suit seeks acknowledgment that the defendants’ policies, actions, and inactions deprived them of wealth and created inequitable health, education, housing, and employment conditions that can and should be remedied today. It also seeks restitution for the harm caused and lives and property lost, as well as an injunction preventing the defendants from exploiting the likeness of victims and legacy of the massacre for economic gain, particularly to raise funds for Greenwood Rising.

The three living survivors of the massacre have said they do not plan to participate in any of the Centennial Commission’s commemoration events. They will instead headline a community-sponsored event called the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, which is the only centennial commemoration that includes and centers the survivors. They will be joined by US Senator Cory Booker, US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, and the creators of the HBO hit series “Watchmen,” which was situated in Tulsa and depicted the race massacre in its opening scene. Unlike the Centennial Commission’s events, the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival will emphasize the Black Tulsa community’s demand for Reparations.

“If there were ever a time for Tulsa and Oklahoma authorities to rise to the occasion, genuinely reckon with their past, and work to repair the harm, that time is now,” Pitter said. “Instead, they are carrying out centennial commemoration activities in ways that continue to harm Tulsa’s Black community.”

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